Ghani’s initiative

March 02, 2018

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AT a daylong international conference in Kabul on Wednesday, President Ashraf Ghani voiced his administration’s willingness to recognise the Afghan Taliban as a legitimate political party if they accepted a ceasefire and the rule of law.

In a bold outreach to a movement he has slammed as a bunch of terrorists, the president proposed open-ended talks. A constitutional review, release of certain prisoners and even helping the insurgents open a political office in Kabul or another location are the salient features of his initiative.

Equally magnanimous is the presidential offer to reintegrate and help lift sanctions on rebel leaders who engage in peace parleys, acknowledge the government’s legitimacy and sever links with militant organisations like Al Qaeda.

How the rebels will respond to Ghani’s offer remains to be seen.

“We’re ready to restart talks about peace with Pakistan, forget bitter experiences of the past and open a new chapter in relations with our neighbour,” he told the second meeting of the Kabul Process, attended by representatives from 25 countries.

Ghani’s readiness to launch a substantive dialogue with Afghanistan’s largest insurgent group and Pakistan signals a softening of stance. Until recently, he had branded the Taliban as the Afghan nation’s enemies and Pakistan as the epicentre of terrorism.

How the rebels, who now stand a chance of becoming part of the embryonic democratic order, will respond to his overture remains to be seen. But in less than a week, the Taliban twice offered face-to-face negotiations with the US, though the proposal has not yet gained traction in Washington.

Under Ghani’s plan, women will be given a key role in reconciliation with the Taliban, who had banned girls’ education during their rule from 1995 to 2001. Women’s involvement in the peace effort may earn international acclaim, but it is unlikely to find favour with the fighters.

On dealing with Pakistan, which can perhaps assist Afghanistan in nudging the guerrillas to the negotiating table, Ghani’s change of heart seems to be pragmatic — not least because Kabul and Islamabad are struggling with common challenges, including militancy.

The shift, nonetheless, is at odds with Trump’s move to squeeze Islamabad financially for refusing to crack down on the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban allegedly operating on its soil. After the recent deadly attacks in Kabul, the White House ruled out any contact with the Taliban.

In January, a massive cut in US military aid to Pakistan raised many eyebrows globally. Still unhinged by the criticism of its move, the US teamed up with allies to table a motion with the Financial Action Task Force seeking to place Pakistan on a watchlist of countries that do not comply with anti-terror financing measures.

Wrapping up the conference, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah echoed Ghani that the government was ready for talks without preconditions to achieve peace and ensure the dignified return of refugees.

Though divided on several issues like electoral reforms and gubernatorial appointments, the two appeared to agree on the overall situation, the need for a political settlement and global calls for effective measures to combat terrorism.

It is heartening that the oft-squabbling coalition partners seem to have realised that they have no option but to work together with neighbours, share intelligence and take coordinated action against terrorists of all stripes without any distinction.

At the regional level, Pakistan, Iran, India, China and Russia can help forge consensus on stabilising Afghanistan. They are rightly expected to have a sincere shot at facilitating communication between Kabul and its armed opponents.

At the same time, ordinary Afghans want the Taliban to rethink their position on withdrawal of foreign troops from the country — a thorny question that has kept the warring parties from sitting across the table. This emotive subject could be debated more meaningfully once serious discussions get under way.

The unity government, while corrupt and aid-addicted, has been elected by millions of Afghans and recognised internationally. While offering the US dialogue on ending the hostilities, the Taliban can also talk out their problems with the government in Kabul.

In spite of being duped by the George W. Bush team, the Taliban are known to have held several rounds of clandestine talks with the US. Before they were suspended in 2012, the secret meetings were punctuated by abrupt roadblocks, arrests and subtle leaks.

Under growing pressure from the global fraternity to renounce violence, the Taliban should know neither they nor the US-led foreign forces can pull off a decisive victory on the battlefield. The guerrillas, therefore, should come up with a bold response to the government’s initiative in the interest of peace. In a stalemate, jaw-jaw is better than war-war.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.

Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2018